Invest in Communications to Maximize Trust

By Jennie Vana
Vice President, Communications | Metro Strategies, Inc
Former Chief Communication Officer | Lake County, IL

From COVID-19 to a hurricane, people rely on the information they get from government officials during a crisis to know what’s happening, what’s being done in response to the crisis and what steps people need to take for their health, safety and wellbeing.  

Public trust is critical during a crisis because government needs people to listen and act and people have a strong desire to look to their local leaders and listen to them as voices of trust, credibility and leadership. Many governments recognize this and that’s why, in response to George Floyd’s death, they issued local statements and videos to their communities and have also made it a priority to communicate with residents and businesses throughout the pandemic.

Earning the public’s trust takes time and requires consistently investing in communications and relationship-building. And social media is a powerful tool to do this.

Captain Chris Hsiung from the Mountain View Police Department in California, who is an internationally-recognized speaker, trainer and blogger on law enforcement's use of social media, put it best: “Each time you interact online…you interact, you’re transparent, those are all little deposits…that creates a nice balance for you to draw from in case there’s ever a crisis.”

If your organization is just blasting out information (one-way) and not engaging with your audiences (two-way communication), you’re not maximizing these tools to their full potential. Recently, one of our clients asked why we would want to respond to a snarky comment on Nextdoor. We advised that the value of these platforms is to foster two-way dialogue to build trust and relationships. The manager agreed and said that “communications now is more important than ever. Let’s go ahead and respond.”

 This “PoliceOne” article on effective use of social media by law enforcement so pointedly states, “In the social media world, ‘no response’ IS a response.” Think of it this way: if you had an unhappy customer at your counter, you wouldn’t ignore them or walk away. You should take the same view when communicating virtually, of course using judgement and recognizing there are always exceptions to this rule.

In my 15-plus years in local government communications and most recently in supporting communications for local governments, I’ve seen firsthand how communicating and engaging can build that bank of trust. Examples range from strong community support around policy changes to small expressions of appreciation, like replies that say, “Thanks for sharing—very helpful.” 

Since March we’ve seen tremendous growth in social media followers and e-newsletter subscribers for our local government clients, further demonstrating that people are turning to and relying on their governments as trusted sources. In fact recent studies show that following years of levels of public trust hitting all-time lows, since the COVID-19 pandemic, trust is higher than ever before (2020 Edelman Trust Barometer Spring Update). 

Here are some of the communications principles we practice every day to truly engage and foster conversations and relationships with the public:

  • Be relevant. What does the information you are communicating mean to the person receiving it? Does it matter to them? Does it impact their lives in any meaningful way? Can they use it? Look through a local lens: what do they need to know that they aren’t getting elsewhere? Also, communicate the “why” and not just the “what” and “how.” (See article: Good Leadership Is About Communicating “Why.”)
  • Be relatable and understandable. In other words, use plain language. This is so important. Share information in a simple, conversational way to help make it understandable. Avoid jargon and translate “government speak.” (See article: 12 writing tools to make COVID-19 coverage comprehensible. One Stands Above the Rest.)
  • Be engaging. Respond to questions and comments. Even a simple “Thanks for your comment” can help people feel heard, and sometimes that’s enough.
  • Be visual. Instead of telling residents, show them and engage them. 

I am deeply passionate about communications and the difference it can make in improving transparency and building public trust. And given our nation’s current state of affairs, I really do believe this is more important than ever before.